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Thai Anti-Government Protesters Dealt a Blow as Dissident General Is Shot

May 13, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: Anti-government protests took a deadly turn in Thailand today. There were gunshots and explosions in the capital, Bangkok. The military moved to seal off an area where thousands of protesters have been camped out.

Shouting protesters lifted the anti-government leader’s listless body moments after he was shot in the head in Bangkok tonight.

New York Times reporter Thomas Fuller was interviewing 58-year-old Khattiya Sawasdipol seconds before the shooting.

THOMAS FULLER, The New York Times: I was among a group of reporters who were talking with him. The other reporters left. I was there with my interpreter. And I asked him a question. He was halfway through answering it, and then a shot rang out, and he dropped to the ground.

I don’t think anything went through my mind, except for just the idea that this bullet probably passed over my head and hit him in the forehead.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The former military major general, now labeled a terrorist by the government, was hurried to a nearby hospital, where his stretcher barely squeezed through a crush of reporters.

In the chaos afterward, soldiers reportedly shot a second person in the head, as projectiles lit up the night sky and people ran for cover. Today’s violence came as the Thai army was preparing to encircle anti-government protesters who have occupied part of central Bangkok for two months.

THEERAPAN CHANTHANASORN, protester (through translator): If the government doesn’t quit, I will not leave. I will fight until I die. Everyone is ready to sacrifice their lives today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thailand’s latest political crisis began March 12, when thousands of so-called Red Shirt protesters swarmed Bangkok and took over an upscale commercial neighborhood of the capital.

They accuse Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of rising to power illegitimately, and have called for early elections. Khattiya, a renegade army general suspended from the military in January, led the protesters’ security force.

Hours before the shooting, the Thai military issued this warning.

COL. SANSERN KAEWKAMNERD, Thai army spokesman (through translator): The military is allowed to shoot anyone armed with weapons, which could be anything from handguns to assault rifles to grenades or bombs. These armed people could be threats to others and are deemed terrorists.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Violence between the Red Shirts and government forces flared up last month, when clashes broke out, killing 25. In recent weeks, tensions seemed to be waning, as the Red Shirts neared a compromise to support early elections in November.

But Khattiya reportedly resisted that plan, and the deal with the prime minister fell apart.

ABHISIT VEJJAJIVA, prime minister of Thailand (through translator): The election date is entirely up to me. It no longer has to be November 14, because there is no response from the Red Shirts, which have created the instability and have prolonged the conflict.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Many of the Red Shirts are supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. He was ousted in a 2006 military coup.